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Volume 13, Issue 3: Liturgia

United in Praise

Peter Leithart

Perhaps the grave digger in Hamlet was right that madness is "no great matter" in England, but Christopher Smart's madness was noteworthy even by English standards. At the time he was confined in his mid-thirties, Smart had already established himself as a poet, scholar, and entertainer. The reasons for his confinement are even more intriguing. A contemporary described Smart's disorder as "a preternatural excitement to prayer, which he held it as a duty not to control or repress . . . so that beginning by regular addresses at stated times to the Almighty, he went on to call his friends from their dinners, or beds, or places of recreation, whenever that impulse towards prayer pressed upon his mind." Samuel Johnson lamented that "My poor friend Smart showed the disturbance of his mind, by falling on his knees, and saying his prayers in the street, or in any other unusual place." By Johnson's reckoning, Smart was less mad than many of his contemporaries since "rationally speaking, it is greater madness not to pray at all, than to pray as Smart did." Johnson added, "I'd as lief pray with Kit Smart as any one else."

Smart's literary reputation has been rising since the 1930s, when his eccentric poem Jubilate Agno ("Rejoice in the Lamb") was first published. Written in an antiphonal form and full of biblical names and allusions, Smart's poem expresses a profoundly Christian view of the world. All his poetry, but especially the Jubilate, is an ecstasy of gratitude and praise. He believed his vocation was to call the world, England in particular, to worship. As he put it in the Jubilate, "For by the grace of God I am the Reviver of Adoration amongst Englishmen" (11.37).
Like his prayers, Smart's gratitude was not confined to the normal channels. He gave thanks for everything, and this overflow of thanks was grounded in his fundamentally sacramental view of reality. For Smart, things were not things first and signs later; everything is created to be a sign of God's presence, character, and love. And things are not signs of God's character in some generic sense. Each particular thing, with its specific qualities and talents, displays something of the glory of the Creator. The most famous section of the Jubilate is his closely observed meditation on his cat "Jeoffry," whose "elegant quickness" is a gift of God: "For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements" (20.59).
Since the world teems with God's grandeur, the only sane response is a life of continuous worship, and Smart was seized by a vision of reality in which all creatures join man in praise to God. Jubilate Agno opens with exhortations to various biblical characters (Noah, Abraham, Aaron, Esau, Balaam and others) to approach the throne of God, each accompanied by an animal. Toads, rats, dormice, leeches, beetles, snails, gnats, Mackerel, Flounder, and many more appear to offer or be offered in worship. Jeoffry the cat spends his days as a "servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him."
In his book The Postmodern Condition, Jean-Francois Lyotard defined postmodernism as skepticism toward "metanarratives." A "metanarrative" is a worldview in story shape. It is the story of world history and of the human race, the story that unlocks the mysteries of reality, the story that enables us to know where we came from and where we are going. Modernists were big on metanarratives: for Marx the story of history was the story of class struggle, Freud saw the conflict between desire and social expectation as the key to understanding human life, and many out-Newtoned Newton in claiming that the universe (and even human behavior) could be reduced to mathematical laws governing matter in motion.
Nobody believes those kinds of things anymore (except professors of literature, who will believe anything). Postmodernists are skeptical of modern stories, however, not because modern theories have been disproven but because they see all meta-narratives as inherently violent and oppressive. Theories can explain everything, they believe, only by persecuting minority facts that don't fit with the theory, and a story can become the big story only by trampling all other stories underfoot. Postmodernists differ about whether or not this absence of a unified vision is a good thing. Some beat their bare chests and celebrate the total war of story against story, tribe against tribe; others think we should reign in our ambition and be content with telling little stories, quietly. All of them, however, are convinced that metanarratives are not only untrue but unjust.
In the postmodern world, the mad poet Christopher Smart's vision of a world united in praise has much to teach us. Reasoned apologetics provides a necessary, but not a sufficient response to postmodernism. The metanarrative of the gospel must be not only proclaimed and defended, but embodied, and embodied first of all in worship. Each time we gather to worship, we picture the world of the future, in which every knee and every creature will rejoice in the Lamb. And we don't just "picture" it, for worship is the firstfruits of the new creation united in praise. Every worship service therefore puts the lie to the postmodern claim that every unity is a violent unity. Centuries ago, Smart provided an answer to postmodernism that no argument can offer: "Let Shema rejoice with the Glowworm, who is the lamp of the traveller and the mead of the musician" (4.21).

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